Alcohol & Athletes

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As an athlete, you know that achieving optimal performance involves practicing hard, hitting the weight room and being on top of your game both mentally and physically.
However, many athletes tend to underestimate the way in which alcohol use, even a few drinks, can nullify your hard work by erasing the effects of your workouts, reducing your endurance and compromising your mental game. The structure of the athletic season sometimes lends itself to small windows of opportunity to “party” that can contribute to nights of heavy binge drinking or over-indulgence, ending in situations of regret, blackouts, legal problems, and sometimes team and university sanctions.
How Alcohol Affects Muscle Development and Recovery

Few athletes realize that consuming alcohol after a workout, practice, or competition can cancel out any physiological gains you may have received from the activity. Not only does long-term alcohol use diminish protein synthesis resulting in a decrease in muscle build-up, but even short-term alcohol use can impede muscle growth.

In order to build bigger and stronger muscles, your body needs sleep to repair itself after a workout. Because of alcohol’s effect on sleep, your body is deprived of a chemical called human growth hormone or HGH. HGH is part of the normal muscle building and repair process and the body’s way of telling itself your muscle needs to grow bigger and stronger. Alcohol however can decrease the secretion of HGH by as much as 70%.

When alcohol is in your body, it triggers the production of a substance in your liver that is directly toxic to testosterone. Testosterone is essential for the development and recovery of your muscles. As alcohol is absorbed through your stomach and small intestine and into your cells, it can disrupt the water balance in muscle cells, altering their ability to produce adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which is your muscles’ source of energy. ATP provides the fuel necessary for your muscles to contract.

Speeding the recovery of sore muscles and injuries is integral to optimal performance. On occasion when an athlete is injured and can’t perform they may see this as an opportunity to use alcohol. Alcohol is a toxin that travels through your bloodstream to every organ and tissue in your body, causing dehydration and slowing your body’s ability to heal itself.

How Alcohol Affects Your Ability to Learn New Plays and Strategies

For most athletes, preparation, learning plays and strategies is essential to peak performance. Use of alcohol can have negative effects on this process. When alcohol is in your system your brain’s ability to learn and store information is inhibited due to compromising the hippocampus, a structure deep in the brain vital to the formation of new memories. Forming memories is a very complex process and many of your memories are solidified when you are not thinking of the information, such as during sleep.

Alcohol effects your sleep cycle by disrupting the sequence and duration of normal sleep, reducing your brain’s ability to retain information. For example, the REM stage of sleep is compromised after a night of drinking, which is vital to memory. The sleep deprivation also suppresses normal hormonal levels decreasing oxygen availability and consumption decreasing endurance.
•    Consuming five or more alcoholic beverages in one night can affect brain and body activities for up to three days
•    Two consecutive nights of drinking five or more alcoholic beverages can affect brain and body activities for up to five days.
•    Attention span is shorter for periods up to forty-eight hours after drinking.
•    Even small amounts of alcohol BAC of .03 can persist for a substantial period of time after the acute effects of alcohol impairment disappear.

How Alcohol Affects Nutrition and Endurance

Ever feel tired and unmotivated after a night of drinking or even a day or two later? Alcohol holds very little nutritional value. The relatively high calories in alcohol are not available to your muscles. The body treats alcohol as fat, converting alcohol sugars into fatty acids. When alcohol is oxidized by dehydrogenase (the enzyme that breaks down alcohol) it produces an elevation of NADH reducing the production of ATP (which is the muscles source of energy), resulting in lack of energy and loss of endurance. Because women have very little of the enzyme dehydrogenase, females experience the primary effect of higher intoxication even when drinking the same amount with a male their same size.

Alcohol use inhibits absorption of important nutrients such as thiamin, vitamin B12, folic acid, and zinc. What do you need these nutrients for?
•    Thiamin (B1) is involved in the metabolism of proteins and fat, the formation of hemoglobin, and it metabolizes carbohydrates.
•    Vitamin B12 is essential to maintain healthy red blood and nerve cells.
•    Folic acid is part of a coenzyme involved in the formation of new cells.
•    Zinc is essential to your energy metabolic processes. The depletion of zinc can have an effect on reducing endurance.

University of Notre Dame, Indiana - Office of Alcohol and Drug Education